UK Restaurant & Hotel Zine
Grano describes its culinary style as "Modern Italian". If you are at all into dining out in Britain, or watch the wall to wall TV chef programmes you'll probably have some idea of what "Modern British"might mean. One wonders what, if anything, the average Italian who lives in Italy would understand by "Modern Italian"? In England, or at least in London, "Modern Italian" can be more easily defined (with a sense of relief) by what it is not. So for instance, no raffia covered Chianti bottles dangling from rustic beams and fake arches - no oval plates covered with beds of all purpose rice; no overcooked meats smothered in universal red tomato sauces - no sawdust dry grissini sticks - no sweet trolley groaning with caramelised oranges, profiteroles and mass produced tiramisu.
The aspirations of Modern Italian restaurants are manifest in carefully thought out menus that are short and to the point; in artful presentation that makes much of contrasting textures and flavours without losing touch with classical roots. But above all there's a palpable love of food that spills out of the kitchen infusing and enthusing the waiting staff and delighting the diners. In London, restaurants like the River Cafe and Zafferano have led the way, while places like The Walnut Tree Inn in Abergavenny, Wales have been at the forefront of this revolution for some time.
Tentazioni in Mill Street, Lloyds Wharf near London Bridge, which opened in February made an immediate impact and lost no time in creating a devoted following. Now they have taken over Oliver's Island behind Strand on the Green in Chiswick. Oliver's Island (which was never on an island but is certainly close to a lovely stretch of the river) was a little bit twee but did good fish and terrible puddings. Its former dull gentility has been stripped away and the rustic modern Italian menu sits comfortably in a setting of exposed brick walls, wooden chairs and dark green paintwork.
There are two menus at Grano, the a la carte with six starters and six mains and a degustazione menu of five courses which also appear on the carte. Within this simple scheme there is room for flexibility. For only an extra two pounds you can convert the starters on the carte to additional main courses, none of which will cost more than ten pounds. We managed to negotiate with the extremely obliging restaurant manager for one of my guests to swap a different meat dish from the carte for the one currently featured on the degustazione.
We began with a salad of calamari, attractively arranged with the tentacled head of the squid emerging from a deep ring cut from the body. It looked like an exotic flower resting on a waterlily made from finely cut diagonals of zucchini. Squirls of sepia completed this creative picture. The second course on the degustazione was billed as Crema di porcini con seppiolini, but wisely, we thought, scallops had been substituted for the cuttlefish which would have been too similar to the squid. The rich taste of the porcini was heavenly. A pretty rice tart with mussels and grand tiger prawns was powerfully flavoured with saffron. I noticed a very elegant plate of pumpkin tagliatelle going to a nearby table. It was augmented with Italian sausage and judiciously decorated with very seasonal chestnuts
Of the main courses we enjoyed a fillet of sole wrapped round a concasse of fennel and fresh tomato. The substituted duck had a tasty crispy skin and rosy pink meat that was very tender. My favourite was a saltinbocca (sic) of venison. Italian chefs are making meats other than veal "jump into the mouth". At Grano the saltimbocca steaks are cut across the bone in the traditional way which helps to make the reduction of meat juices even richer. There was just enough of a hint of gaminess and the accompanying red cabbage had been rendered to an unctuous dark purple pulp after lengthy marinading in red wine followed by very slow cooking.
The puddings all cost six pounds - I particularly liked the crostatina al granduia a rich, dark chocolate and hazelnut tart. Once the locals get over their surprise, I predict that Grano will soon become both a favourite haunt as well as a destination for the ever increasing band of Modern Italian fans.